File:French Florida 1562.gif

This and tomorrow’s post are the final in my 2013 instalments on the Huguenots.

Today’s looks at the Huguenot settlement in what is now South Carolina.

Official history being what it is, let it be said that the French arrived there first.

Settlements in what was called French Florida were named after Charles IX.

The influential Huguenot leader Admiral Gaspard (Caspar) de Coligny, to whom all of European royalty today is related, sponsored this significant, if short-lived exploration.

Coligny wanted to ensure that the Huguenots could have a safe place to settle outside of France.

The Huguenot settlements in French Florida occurred within a decade after their brief colonisation of the Rio de Janeiro area of Brazil in the 1550s. The French referred to that part of the world as France Antarctique.

The map at the top, courtesy of Wikipedia, shows French exploration of Florida and South Carolina. It is dated 1562, although it is puzzling to see the words ‘Charles Town’ (see 33° latidude).

The English did not arrive in the Province of Carolina until 1629. England’s Charles I had granted a charter to Sir Robert Heath to establish a colony there, although he never did. As students of history know, the king was beheaded in 1649, and Cromwell’s Interregnum lasted until the Restoration — Charles II’s accession — in 1660. Heath’s descendants attempted to claim the territories he had explored, but Charles II denied their request and instead sent eight men to establish the Province in 1663. They named the territory in memory of Charles I.

Back now to the French. Although the Huguenot ships sailing for the New World were populated by Protestants, there were also Catholics among them. This was also the case in Brazil, where religious discussions contributed to social fracturing amongst the settlers.

The University of South Carolina carried out archaeological investigations of the French colony, Charlesfort, in Port Royal Sound, another French name.

This is the story of that colony.

In 1562, Admiral Coligny chose one of his officers and fellow Huguenot, Jean Ribault, to lead the expedition to French Florida.

Ribault was from the bustling port city of Dieppe in Normandy. At that time, Dieppe was known for having the most advanced cartography in France. Huguenots from Dieppe had already established a short-lived settlement in present-day St Kitts in 1538. Against this backdrop of exploration and trade, it is not surprising that Ribault enlisted in the French Navy then took up Coligny’s offer to sail to Florida.

Ribault and his 150 colonists left France in February 1562 and arrived in present-day Jacksonville, Florida, in May of that year. They explored the mouth of the St John’s River, which he called River May for the month of their landing.

However, they did not stay there; colonisation would come a few years later (see tomorrow’s post). Instead, Ribault and his men sailed north along the coast to chart rivers and other important features. They arrived in what they called Port Royal Sound, where the Sea Islands are located. On what is now called Parris Island, Ribault established Charlesfort, named for the French king Charles IX.

Port Royal Sound is the oldest surviving French place name in North America after St Lawrence River in Canada. Ribault described his discovery as

one of the greatest and fayrest havens of the world.

Charlesfort had plenty of space for a colony and provided a strategic location, important for defence. Of it, Ribault wrote:

a place of strong scytuation and commodyous, upon a river which we have called Chenonceau …

It took only three weeks for Ribault and his men to construct Charlesfort. Ribault’s intention was to make a quick trip to France for more supplies and settlers, then return. Before he set sail, he left Albert de Pierria, a trusted soldier, in charge of the 26 gentlemen, soldiers and navy men left at Charlesfort. The other 124 sailed back to Europe with Ribault in June 1562.

Unfortunately, at this point, both Ribault’s situation and Charlesfort’s began to unravel.

Ribault and his men neared in the northern port of Le Havre only to find the French Wars of Religion in progress. They could not dock there, as the port was blocked, so they sailed to nearby Dieppe, Ribault’s home town.

Although it is unclear what happened to his men at this point, Ribault helped his fellow Huguenots in Dieppe before sailing to England, where he hoped to obtain support from Elizabeth I and her advisors. He achieved an audience with the Queen, who promised him help. However, he was later arrested and briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London, accused of being a spy. It was in the Tower that he wrote his account of Charlesfort, very briefly excerpted above. The University of South Carolina has used that English translation in its archaeological efforts.

Ribault would return to sail another day — this time to Florida.

Meanwhile, back in Charlesfort, Albert de Pierria’s discipline was harsh. His small band of men became increasingly disillusioned. To make matters worse, their food and supplies were running out. The local Indian tribes — the Orista and Escamacu — could not replace them. A group of Pierria’s men sailed to present-day Georgia to obtain rations from the Guale Indians. The Guale shared what they could.

Shortly after the Frenchmen returned to Charlesfort with food from the Guale, their main building somehow burned to the ground. The Guale’s food went along with it as well as almost every possession the men had.

The Orista and Escamacu helped the French rebuild their fort. However, by now, the settlers were at breaking point. It seemed to them as if Ribault would never return and Pierria’s discipline was insufferable. He had already hanged one man and banished another to a nearby island. The men at Charlesfort rebelled by killing Pierria.

Nicolas Barre (Barré) assumed command. He and the remaining men decided to build their own small ship and set sail for France. The local Indians provided some of the materials for the boat, made of wood, pitch, Spanish moss and cordage. The men used their shirts as sails. This is how desperate they were.

Not everyone in Charlesfort decided to return to France. It’s important to remember that here, as well as in Brazil and on St Kitts, the French treated the Indians with kindness. One of de Perria’s young servants, Guillermo Rouffi, decided to make his home among the Orista. A few of the French settlers in Brazil lived among the Indians there, although, having undergone so much hardship, they could not sustain the Indians’ way of life for long.

As for the 21 men sailing back to France from Charlesfort in April 1563, it comes as no surprise that their crossing of the Atlantic was a difficult one. After they had exhausted their meagre food supplies, they began to eat their leather shoes.

Worse was to come as they turned to cannibalism by killing La Chère, the man whom de Perria had banished to an island off Charlesfort.

La Chère’s remains enabled the seven remaining men, including Captain Barré, to reach Europe.  An English ship spotted the boat and rescued the crew.

There ends the story of the Huguenots in South Carolina.

As for Guillermo Rouffi, who lived with the Orista, he helped the Spanish explore Charlesfort in 1564. The Spanish — Catholic — King Philip II ordered an expedition to destroy whatever remained of Charlesfort.

Manrique de Rojas led the expedition. In conversing with the Indians, they learned that Rouffi was still there. The Indians introduced the young man to Rojas. Rouffi gave the Spaniards a full account of Ribault’s settlement and what took place there. Rojas then burned the remains of Charlesfort and sailed to a nearby island where Ribault had erected a stone marker of the French arrival two years before. Rojas put the stone on his ship and set sail for Cuba.

In 1566, Spain’s Pedro Menéndez de Avilés established the settlement of Santa Elena (Helena) on present-day Parris Island in order to discourage any further attempts by the French to colonise Carolina.

Tomorrow: The Huguenots in 16th century French Florida